A criminal defendant does not have to plead insanity in order for a jury to hear evidence about his mental illness, the Colorado Supreme Court decided on Monday. At the same time, the justices noted that proof of severe mental illness can only be used for establishing insanity, and left it to lower court judges to distinguish between the two.
In clarifying the law for mentally ill defendants, the Court reversed a Denver judge who greenlit for trial the entirety of a murder suspect's psychological assessment, even though the man intended to use it to argue self-defense rather than plead not guilty by reason of insanity. The justices chose to hear the appeal directly and bypass the Court of Appeals, noting the issue in the case had never surfaced for consideration before.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors both cautiously welcomed the Court’s direction.
“I am generally very much in favor of admission of evidence that would relate to the defendant’s state of mind,” said Patrick J. Mulligan, a Denver criminal defense attorney who has handled insanity cases. “It feels to me like this case is important in recognizing the potential significance of mental health evidence, if that mental health evidence doesn’t fall specifically in the category of insanity.”
Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, whose office argued the case before the Supreme Court, was pleased the ruling ensured those defendants with serious mental illnesses would still receive commitment and treatment if found not guilty.
“It is neither just nor humane to treat a defendant who commits a crime because of delusions or paranoia as an ordinary defendant,” she said. “To instead remove the defendant from the community and provide mental health treatment is appropriate and safer for both the community and the defendant.”
In the Court’s opinion, Justice William W. Hood III gave neither a blanket thumbs-up nor thumbs-down to the mental health evaluation for defendant Aundre D. Moore. Instead, the Court ordered District Court Judge Edward D. Bronfin to withhold any information that met the “diseased and defective” legal standard for insanity.
“The court must parse any proffered mental condition evidence, line by line if necessary, to distinguish what is probative of insanity,” Hood wrote. For a mental affliction to constitute insanity, it “must have been so severely abnormal that it grossly and demonstrably impaired the defendant’s perception or understanding of reality (without being attributable to the voluntary ingestion of drugs or alcohol).”
In the case at hand, police arrested Moore for allegedly shooting 42-year-old Jamaica McClain in the head in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver on March 21, 2019. Prior to the killing, McClain and Moore argued with each other, with McClain unarmed during the encounter.
Moore planned to present evidence that he was acting in self-defense, including with assertions that McClain was trying to provoke a fight, that McClain had asked Moore to back up, that Moore knew McClain was in a gang, and that Moore saw McClain reach for something in his car before approaching.
Colorado law does permit deadly physical force in self-defense if someone has a reasonable basis to believe they are imminent danger of being killed or severely injured. But the law is silent about whether mental health information that could be used to show insanity might instead prove self-defense.
After his arrest, a forensic psychiatrist for the state and a psychologist hired by the defense conducted evaluations of Moore. Both of them diagnosed Moore with trauma- and stress-related disorders, and noted Moore’s past experience with gun violence. His grandfather had been murdered, Moore himself was shot twice, and three of his friends had been slain. One of the doctors indicated Moore’s thinking was “distorted with psychotic qualities,” and the other diagnosed him with various substance use disorders.
However, the state’s expert found that while Moore’s judgment at the time of the murder was likely affected by substances, he “did not suffer from a severe, abnormal mental condition [that] grossly and demonstrably impaired his perception or understanding of reality,” and could in fact distinguish right from wrong.
Prosecutors and the defense drew different conclusions from the findings.
“Moore’s mental illness — in a circumstance that involved, at best, a nonphysical confrontation — made him think that his life was in danger. According to Moore’s defense, this provided him with justification to kill an unarmed man,” wrote McCann’s office to the Supreme Court. If a jury acquitted him, “what would happen the next time Moore is faced with a confrontational situation?”
Moore’s attorneys insisted he did not meet the criteria for insanity, and would use the doctors’ testimony only to explain Moore's "perception of the threat" he felt on the night in question stemming from his mental conditions.
"Mr. Moore has to establish he was personally afraid in this situation, and if we don’t, he could be found guilty. And that’s what this evidence will do," Deputy Public Defender Sarah Varty told the justices.
The Court, in hearing the parties' claims, signaled an openness during oral arguments to accepting Moore's statement at face value that the mental health evidence would speak solely to his state of mind, as the self-defense statute outlines.
“Certainly parts of the reports go more to, like, his trigger finger, his sensitivity given his experiences, but don’t go to anything like an inability to tell right from wrong,” said Justice Melissa Hart.
The Court's decision avoided defining mental health evidence as categorically off-limits, instead empowering trial court judges with the discretion to censor details that severely impair a defendant's sense of reality — the legal benchmark for insanity. In doing so, Hood, in the May 3 opinion, indicated a skepticism that jurors would acquit Moore based solely on his assertion of self-defense and the accompanying evidence.
“For Moore to be acquitted, a jury must find that Moore had a reasonable ground to believe that he was in imminent danger of being killed or of receiving great bodily injury and that Moore reasonably believed less force would have been inadequate,” Hood wrote. “In other words, Moore’s subjective impression alone doesn’t control the viability of his self-defense claim. So, this hardly seems like a recipe for chaos.”
Some experts on the insanity defense felt the Court's logic in allowing some types of information but not others was needlessly complicated.
“A more straightforward approach would have been to focus on the purpose of the testimony and permit psychiatric evidence introduced for purposes other than a claim of insanity,” said Paul S. Appelbaum, director of the Center for Research on Ethical, Legal & Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic & Behavioral Genetics at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons.
“That would have avoided the necessity of lower courts meticulously parsing and editing proposed expert testimony, with experts being allowed to say some things but not others, leaving juries potentially mystified as to what’s going on," he added.
The nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that 20% of inmates in jails and 15% in state prisons have a significant mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association has repeatedly affirmed its support for the insanity defense, most recently in 2019, saying that serious mental disorders and developmental disabilities "can substantially impair an individual’s capacities to reason rationally and to inhibit behavior that violates the law."
Mulligan, the criminal defense attorney, labeled "insanity" as less of a medical concept than a legal one with its own threshold of proof. As a result, trial court judges who must now go line by line to evaluate medical evidence of a mental condition have a challenging task.
"It feels like time for state legislatures, Colorado's included, to move forward with a more sophisticated and perhaps more fair definition of how mental illness is to be litigated in the criminal justice system," he said.
The case is People v. Moore.